The 25th Amendment: Section 4 and March 30, 1981

In 2015 the Reagan Presidential Library began developing a one-of-a-kind experiential learning simulation called the Situation Room Experience.  One of the pivotal issues in the Situation Room Experience regards the 25th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.   The 25th Amendment was ratified February 10, 1967.  Today’s blog post, from Reagan Library Education Department staffer Brett Robert, is the third of a series that explores that Amendment in-depth.  The first post in this series looked at Sections 1 and 2, and the last post looked at Section 3, today’s post examines Section 4.


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From left to right James Baker, then Chief of Staff, Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada, and President Reagan having a discussion at George Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C. April 8, 1981.  Because the 25th Amendment was not invoked when the President was shot on March 30, 1981, President Reagan continued making decisions and doing the work of the President even as he recovered from his shooting in the hospital.

After President Ronald Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981, his administration prepared, but did not sign, the letters necessary to invoke the 25th Amendment, which shows how concerned they were with the possibility of having a temporary acting President until President Reagan could recover.   One of the letters is shown below,  or you can download a .pdf of the complete set of letters here.  The letter seen here would have invoked Section 4 of the 25th Amendment if Vice President George H.W. Bush and a majority of the Cabinet members had signed that letter and sent it to the Senate President pro tempore, which was Strom Thurmond at the time, and the Speaker of the House, then Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. 

In the end the Reagan Administration chose not to invoke the 25th Amendment and the letter was never signed.  Surgeons were able to remove the bullet and President Reagan recovered.  The day after the shooting President Reagan signed legislation, he left the hospital after 13 days, April 25 he was back in the Oval Office, and on April 28, 1981 he received several standing ovations when he walked into a joint session of Congress and delivered the speech seen in the video below.

If you look closely Section 4 allows “the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide” to make the decision to allow the Vice President to temporarily become Acting President if the President is disabled, until the President recovers.  In this sentence, the phrase “the principal officers of the executive departments” was meant to describe the President’s Cabinet.

Section 4 of the 25th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America:

“Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.”

Returning to the attempt on President Reagan’s life in 1981, several members of the administration mentioned their thoughts on the 25th Amendment in later memoirs.  In a 1989 interview David Gergen, who was White House Director of Communications when President Reagan was shot, said the following:

“There is a very great reluctance to move on the Twenty-Fifth.  Everyone is hesitant because in effect you are expressing less than full confidence in your chief executive.  There is an overwhelming urge to convey a serene view to the world, and I think everybody in the room wanted to say, ‘Hey, unless we are forced, we don’t deal with that.'”  David Gergen, quoted in Herbert L. Abrams, “The President Has Been Shot”: Confusion, Disability and the 25th Amendment in the Aftermath of the Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992), 181.

In his own book former Secretary of State Alexander Haig wrote the following:

“At no time did those present in the Situation Room consider invoking the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which had been ratified in the aftermath of Eisenhower’s heart attack.  Discussion of the transfer of authority was premature and inappropriate and I believed it should be avoided.  Certainly the preparation of papers on the subject was ill-advised.  The Dairy Bill was due for signing on the following day.  If the President was able to sign it, and was seen doing so, then all doubt as to his capacity would effectively be dispelled.”  Alexander Haig, Caveat: Realism, Reagan, and Foreign Policy (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1984), 157.

These quotes from both Gergen and Haig reveal the complexity and nuance of the question of Presidential disability.  Members of the President’s Administration, and the Cabinet in particular, need to balance their concerns about the President’s political future after the President recovers against the needs of the nation in the acute crisis.

Section 4 Review

Section 4 is a little more complicated than Section 3.  In plain language, Section 4 does the following:

  • Provide a way to put someone else in charge if the President is so sick, injured, or otherwise disabled that the President could not even sign the letter.  Like with Section 3, it is almost like a way for a coworker to cover the President’s shift if the President cannot work.
  • If the President cannot sign the letter, the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet members could sign a letter and send it to Congress saying the Vice President will be acting President until the President recovers.
  • Once the President recovered, the President could send a letter saying they are ready to work again.

The part above works just like Section 3, except with the Vice President and the Cabinet signing the letter to the Senate President pro tempore and Speaker of the House.  It gets a little more complicated if the President wants to get back to work, but the Vice President and Cabinet do not think the President is ready to work again.

  • If the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet were worried the President was not ready to work yet after the President sends a letter saying they are ready to return, then the Vice President and Cabinet could send Congress another note saying that the Vice President should stay in charge as Acting President.
  • Then both Houses of Congress would have to meet and decide if the President was ready to come back.  In this case a very large two-thirds supermajority of each House would have to be against the President coming back for the Vice President to stay in power against the President’s wishes.  Two-thirds supermajority means 67 of the 100 Senators and 290 of the 435 Representatives would have to vote against the President resuming powers.  If it was 66 Senators and 305 Representatives or even 100 Senators but only 289 Representatives, that would not be enough to overturn the President’s right to resume power and the President would be back in charge.
  • In the end it is very hard to prevent the President from resuming power.  It takes agreement from all of the following: the Vice President, the Cabinet, and a supermajority of both Houses of Congress.
  • Section 4 also lets Congress pass a law designating or creating a different group instead of the President’s Cabinet to consult with the Vice President on Presidential disability.

Section 4 of the 25th Amendment has never been invoked in United States history.

For Students and Educators

Vocabulary and Key Terms
President
Vice President
Acting President
Senate
Senate President pro tempore
House of Representatives
Speaker of the House
supermajority
majority
Cabinet
Executive Department
Constitution
Constitutional Amendment

Short Answer Questions

What problems does section 4 of the 25th Amendment Address?

 

How many times has section 4 been invoked and by which Presidents?

 

How does the President resume power?

 

Deeper Analysis Questions

How do you think the Cold War and twentieth century technology influenced the creation and authorship of the 25th Amendment?

How might the 25th Amendment create opportunities for political enemies to try to take power from the President?  What ways does the law try to protect the President?

If you were asked to write a Constitutional Amendment to solve the problems the 25th Amendment addresses, and given a copy of the 25th Amendment as a suggestion, would you change anything?  If so, what would you change and why?  If not, describe why the 25th Amendment solves the problems well and why you would leave it as is.

 

 

 

About Brett Robert

Brett Robert holds a Bachelor of the Arts degree in History from Sonoma State University and a Master of the Arts in History from California State University Northridge.
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